The Washington Spirit returned to the Maryland SoccerPlex on Saturday night in search of a point to secure a spot in the 2016 NWSL Playoffs. Western New York came to town to try and better its spot in the standings in the race to the playoffs. Goals from Spirit forward Katie Stengel and Flash midfielder Sam Mewis would assure both teams would walk away with a point.
“[WNY is] a very athletic team and very good in the air,” head coach Jim Gabarra said. “Huge challenge and I think that’s what you’ve got to expect coming down the stretch here when you’re at the top, everyone’s going to come after you with all they have. I thought they put us under a lot of pressure and we really had a hard time getting a hold of the tempo of the game in the first 25 minutes.”
Both teams exchanged chances, but neither was able to find the back of the net in the first half. Flash forward Lynn Williams had the best chance of the first half when a cross landed at her feet in the 37th minute. A quick save from Spirit goalkeeper Kelsey Wys kept the game scoreless headed into the half.
Just under 15 minutes into the second half, Stengel would break open the scoring with a goal past Flash goalkeeper Sabrina D’Angelo. After being denied by D’Angelo twice in the previous few minutes, Stengel assured she would not be stopped again. Stengel beat D’Angelo in a foot race, jumped over the diving keeper to slot home the go-ahead goal. The goal was the forward’s fourth of the season.
The lead would not last long though. After multiple failed clearing attempts from the Spirit defense, Mewis would pounce on a loose ball at the top of the box and send it skipping past Wys. Despite switching to five defenders in the back in the 79th minute, the Flash would tie it up in the 86th minute to steal a point on the road.
“We had to fight for that point,” Stengel said. “Anytime a late goal is scored, it’s disappointing. We thought we would come away with three points, but they were putting a lot of pressure on us.”
Saturday marked the return of the Canadian Olympians to the Spirit squad. Goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé, midfielder Diana Matheson and defender Shelina Zadorsky were all honored prior to kick-off. While the three did not make it back into the starting XI, both Matheson and Zadorsky did enter the match as second half subs.
“We have a deep squad, so when people leave for national team duty, we still have a fantastic starting eleven and bench,” Matheson said. “People are working hard to get starting spots, and if you’re not getting them, you’re supporting everyone else out there. It’s just a good, positive group.”
While Labbé returned to the game day roster, Gabarra stuck with Wys in goal. Wys, who has started eight of the Spirit’s 17 games this season, made 12 saves to keep the potent Flash attack at bay. Now with two highly talented goalkeepers on the roster, Gabarra is left with a tough decision on game day when choosing a starting goalkeeper.
“It’s a good problem to have, but it is a problem. It’s a headache,” Gabarra said. “It’s great to have Steph there and I’m sure there will be some competition over the next week, but as of right now, Kelsey has got the starting position and it’s up to Steph to beat her out.”
The Spirit return to the SoccerPlex on Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2016 to face the Seattle Reign for the first time this season. Kick off is scheduled for 7 p.m. While the Spirit have secured a playoff spot, continuing to gather points will be important in the chase for the NWSL shield for best record in the league.
Photo Credit: Kelley Piper (@kpiperphotos)